'Spinning' to make progress in fight against ALS
By Melissa Hollander Daily Herald Columnist
So, I was pretty proud of myself when my Sunday morning cycling, or "spin," class recently increased from one hour to 90 minutes and I stuck with the class.
Then a few weeks ago, my cycling teacher, Katie Sweeney, announced that she would be spinning for 10 hours straight at the Buehler YMCA's War on ALS Spin-a-thon Saturday and wouldn't some of us like to join her on a bike?
OK, so what would prompt someone -- even someone who loves cycling like Sweeney -- to hop on a bike for 10 hours?
Well, first a little history: The third annual Spin-a-thon, which will take place from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Buehler YMCA, 1400 W. Northwest Hwy., is organized by Ironmen and friends Bob Mitera and John Wolski of Palatine in honor of fellow athlete Jon "Blazeman" Blais, who last summer lost his battle with ALS and died at age 35.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, still has no cure -- even 67 years after Gehrig's death.
Mitera was in Kona, Hawaii, coaching and working as a volunteer at the 2005 Ironman World Championship and was inspired after meeting Blais, who was competing while suffering from ALS.
"When I returned from Kona, my friend John Wolski and I were talking on a training run and the entire effort started to develop from there," Mitera said.
"This was a fellow athlete who needed our help," Wolski said. "Rather than sit on the sidelines and do nothing, we were going to do something."
Wolski and Mitera set up their first event two years ago with a small group on five bikes spinning in the lobby of the Buehler for 16.5 hours, the amount of time it took Blais to finish the Ironman. Last year, dozens of cyclists kept 15 bikes spinning for 10 straight hours. This year, the duo is hoping to have riders on all 20 bikes spinning for 10 hours.
And Sweeney will be on the bike for all 10 hours, something she's never done on a bike inside before.
"I have on a bike outside, where I'm actually going somewhere," said Sweeney, laughing. "The longest I rode last year was probably two to three hours at a time. I rode about six over the course of the day. So, it's going to be a challenge for me. But this is nothing compared to what he (Blais) went through."
Sweeney met Blais at the first ALS Spin-a-thon at the Y.
"He really made an impact on me. He was so open about ALS and teaching and education," Sweeney said.
Sweeney remembers Blais talking with some teens at the first Spin-a-thon, and asking them, "Do you want to meet a man who's about to die?" Sweeney told him that was quite a poignant statement. He answered that "'It's about learning, it's about teaching people."
"When I found out that treatment for ALS is the same as when Lou Gehrig had it," Sweeney said, shaking her head. "So many other areas have advanced, this is one area that hasn't, so I really signed on."
Sweeney said the Spin-a-thon is an opportunity to continue Blais' mission to educate people about the disease.
"There's many of us who will be on the bikes who do know about ALS, who can help educate people. It's a great conversation," she said.
Bob Blais, Jon Blais' dad, will be spending the day in Palatine to personally thank everyone for supporting his son and Blazeman's War on ALS, Wolski said.
Also participating in this year's Buehler YMCA event will be Jim Chamernik of Grayslake, whose wife, Aimee, a mother of three, is battling ALS. To learn more about Aimee, visit http://www.askaboutaimee.com/.
For more information or to make a donation to the ALS Spin-a-thon, go to: www.active.com/donate/teamblazeman/JWolski1. Or stop by the YMCA on Saturday, hop on a bike or make a donation. Checks can be made out to the Blazeman Foundation for ALS.
The ALS Spin-a-thon has grown into a nationwide effort, Wolski said. The nationwide Spin-a-thon will be March 1. Due to a scheduling conflict, the Palatine event is a different date this year, he said.
"But, this is where it started and it's growing. We're committed to continuing," Wolski said.
For more information about the Buehler YMCA, call (847) 359-2400 or visit http://www.buehlerymca.org/.
Oh, and if you stop by … I'll be the really sweaty one who doesn't look like she knows what she's doing, on a bike from 1 to 3 p.m.